Between Fiction and History: Telling the Plague in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Alessandro Manzoni’s Storia della colonna infame

Davide Crosara, Gianluca Cinelli


Daniel Defoe (1670-1731) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) represent two exemplary case studies of the European reflection about language, power, and pestilence in the context of Enlightenment due to their respective biographical positioning before and after that philosophical revolution. They both devote to the plague two diptychs (Defoe with the Due Preparations for the Plague and A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, and Manzoni with I promessi sposi and La storia della colonna infame in 1840) that encompass a tension between fiction and history, narrative and the archive. These tensions produce two different approaches to the plague and its narrative and two partially diverging evaluations of the interplay between fact and fiction in relation to such a traumatic event. Nonetheless, Defoe and Manzoni share the attempt to provide rational and truthful insight into the epidemic, its origins, and its social and economic consequences. Their narrators – the witness and the omniscient historian – accept that language cannot domesticate evil and suffering by framing them in an image, and for this reason, they tell their stories by combining different genres and styles, creating hybridised narrative forms capable of challenging the ideological notion of disease beyond the cultural context of Enlightenment. These historical narratives outline a discourse that resonates with the current Covid-19 pandemic.


The plague in literature; Historical fiction; Daniel Defoe; Alessandro Manzoni; Enlightenment; Betrayal in literature

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